I’ve just started reading Joseph Myers’ book The Search to Belong, and I’ve found it really helpful so far in helping me think through issues of community and belonging in the church we’re planting. I want to blog through the book to generate some more conversation around the issues.
Myers takes the first chapter to outline several “myths of belonging.” These commonly-held beliefs about what creates intimacy and community among people are:
- More time = more belonging. Not necessarily, it appears. One can experience a sense of belonging through annual events focused around common interest, for example.
- More commitment = more belonging. Again, not necessarily. A significant relationship is not always the same thing as a committed relationship. Commitment by itself does not produce community.
- More purpose = more belonging. Getting people organized around a common purpose or passion does not guarantee that they will connect.
- More personality = more belonging. Sometimes we assume that some people are “wired” for community <cough>extroverts</cough>, but this simply isn’t true. Oftentimes the most outgoing among us are the also the loneliest. People of all personality types are capable of developing deep connections with others.
- More proximity = more belonging. People living near each other, while definitely making it easier to connect with others spontaneously, does not in and of itself create a sense of belonging and community.
- More small groups = more belonging. Just because people are getting together on purpose doesn’t mean relational connections are being made. Having small groups does not necessarily lead to people having a sense of belonging.
Myers then introduces us to the main thesis of his book, that community is multidimensional. That we belong to each other on different levels. Building on the work of Edward T. Hall, Myers proposes that we could perhaps think about community and belonging according to four “spaces:”
“These four spaces communicate how we belong to each other,” Myers says. “This conversation is about recognizing, describing, and validating (or invalidating) the ways in which we build healthy community and employ specific spaces to communicate belonging.”
A few questions for discussion:
- Which of the above myths have you fallen for or seen employed? Where would you push back a bit?
- Does the language of public, social, personal, and intimate space resonate with you? In what ways have you experienced those kinds of “spaces of belonging?” How would you describe each?
One thing that really struck me as I read this… A lot of the things we do in worship together: corporate prayers, confessions of faith, confessing our sins, singing, passing the Peace of Christ, the sacraments of communion and baptism… All of these things “connect” us together through all four levels all at once: Public, Social, Personal, Intimate.
I’m definitely going to order this book. Thanks, Ben.
Ben Sternke says
Interesting thought, Brian. Thanks for the comment!
Todd Hiestand says
Ben, this book and Joe himself have shaped our community in some significant ways. Would love to chat about them sometime if you’re interested.
Ben Sternke says
Todd, I’d love to talk about the book with you. I’ll email you.
James Paul says
Read this book a couple years ago. The idea of community happening in 4 different spaces still influences the way I think about mission and church. It’s a great relational grid to discern & interpret culture. As I re-read Myer’s “myths” in your post I was struck by the word “belonging”. I’m concerned that this notion, while pregnant with redemptive potential, is often viewed in the church as an entitlement, rather than a grace. In truth, we don’t deserve community. It’s entirely possible that God may place us (or those we serve) in contexts where our only realized sense of belonging is found in Christ, giving us opportunity to identify with His lonliness on the cross. The good news is that while we don’t deserve it, we’ve been adopted into an intimate and diverse eternal family by the blood of Jesus. We love because he first loved us. Myers rightly argues we can’t force people into cookie-cutter community molds. Christian belonging must be gospel-centered and grace-motivated. It’s a supernatural, God-breathed phenomenon. I’m praying for more of it in our church.
Ben Sternke says
I think you’re spot-on, James, in pointing out that oftentimes people see community, or a sense of belonging, as an entitlement, or something that should just “happen” for them.
It seems like a tricky balance as a leader, then, between doing the work of creating spaces where people might connect, and resisting the temptation to attempt to “create” community.
Jason Coker says
Fascinating. I’m going to have to get this book.
I haven’t read it, so I really can’t speak intelligently about the conclusions, but the push back I find myself wanting to give concerns commitment. Maybe I’m wrong, but my sense is that “belonging” is a measure of commitment in one form or another and that several of the dynamics listed – time, proximity, and purpose, participation – are actually just different ways of measuring commitment. There are other ways. With a gym membership, my “belonging” is measured by the commitment of time and money (mostly money from the gyms perspective, mostly time from mine). In a family “belonging” is measured by the commitments of time, gifts, loyalty, and affection at the very least. In politics, it’s time, gifts, reciprocity, purpose, and, of course, votes. In a marriage (or other form of domestic partnership) you could add sex to a long list of ways belonging is measured by commitment. So, I tend to think that the depth belonging depends greatly on the breadth of ways a commerce of commitment is carried out. My guess is that a shallow and narrow commerce of commitment is synonymous with a weak sense of belonging and that a broad and deep array of commitments is synonymous with a strong sense of belonging.
Again, maybe I’m wrong. I’d be curious to hear some of the author’s examples of relationships where a deep commitment does not correspond to a real sense of belonging, or conversely where there’s a strong sense of belonging but no real commitment.
Ben Sternke says
Jason, I had the same concern after reading just this first chapter. It seemed he was advocating a consumer approach to community: “belong in whatever way you want for however long you want with no long-term commitment!”
As I read further into the book, I don’t think he is saying this. I think you’re right that high commitment usually corresponds with high belonging, but Myers is also criticizing the church’s “pushiness” for people to get into small groups, instead of creating spaces where people can choose to belong… but I am thinking that choice to belong probably also entails a choice to commit.